Friday, July 18, 2008

The Little Green Wallet

With two canvas bags slung over my shoulder, I twist the key in the lock. The door opens with a creak. Trotting into my bedroom, I pour the contents of my bags on to the bed. A cute white peasant shirt with beads around the neck. An embroidered black blouse for nights out. A linen button up for cooler summer nights. And more.

My clothes haven't been feeling quite so flattering these days. So I went on a shopping spree. Not a spree, really, because it didn't have the emotional charge, the feeling of losing control, the high that I used to get when I shopped recreationally. Actually, I guess I just went and bought some clothes.

At my local thrift shop.

I'm not a non-consumer. I've never done the Compact, either. It's just not my style.

Instead, I buy used. In the past year, I've only bought myself one new article of clothing. Everything else comes from my favorite second-hand stores.

Ever since I realized the impact of new items on the environment - that fact that for every 100 pounds of product that hits the store shelves at least 3,200 pounds of waste are generated - I've seized on second-hand as the environmental choice. No resources were used to make the new-to-me items. Unless I purchased it off of Ebay, which I usually don't, few resources were consumed in transport as used items tend to stay local. Further, it is important to create a market for used items so they find homes that do not include the landfill. And, best yet, I can usually find whatever I want second-hand for a fraction of the price new.

Over the past year, I've purchased new wardrobes for my kids, dishes to replace the ones they broke, drinking glasses to replace the ones they broke, toys to replace the ones they broke, games, a bike, and new clothes for myself. All of those purchases have been inexpensive and guilt free. Every now and then, though, I've been unable to find something I want used. On those occasions, I've sat back and wondered if I truly *needed* it, if I could make do with something else, if I could borrow it from a friend. If, after all that thought, I decided I had no alternative but to buy new, I would carefully research the most sustainable choice. Once I reached a decision, I'd moan and groan for a few more weeks or months and then, eventually, jump in and buy.

While I revel in the environmental correctness of my purchasing decisions, my husband does not.

He has always been a more mindful consumer than I, buying only after months of deliberation. Now that we've "gone green", he'll occasionally dabble in used goods, scoping out a bike trailer or a desk out on Craigslist. He believes just as passionately, though, in supporting small companies that strive to create a sustainable product. He argues that big business will never be incited to change if they do not lose market share to companies offering true environmental products, if those of us who care about the planet don't create a demand for such goods. (He also throws in a whole bunch of economics talk that I don't really understand and therefore cannot repeat.)

Every time, my husband opts to buy something new, I cringe. We've gone around and around on this topic but have never seen eye to eye. I knew I was right. When I told him I was going to write a post about this, he responded, "I'm right. I know I am." We agreed to disagree.

Until I read Garbage Land.

Among many other things, the book highlights the need for a market for recycled products - something we've heard time and again since the 1970's. What does it matter if we diligently separate our milk carton or beer bottle in the recycle bin if it is always cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin materials (due to subsidies)? If there is no market for recycled goods? How can recycling be "environmental" if no one demands products made from recycled material? If the only countries willing to recycle our cast-offs are on the other side of the ocean? As Arduous asked last spring, "what would happen if every eco-conscious person decided to get off the grid?" What if that "grid" is the marketplace? Isn't it incumbent upon someone to provide a market for these materials?

I've always assumed that the "someone" would be someone else. Someone "less green" than I with my second hand shoes and my pre-owned purse. But maybe . . . that someone is me?

At our breakfast meeting, Arduous talked about a hypothetical MP3 player (I think?) that was made entirely out of recycled materials and at the end of its useful life could easily be remade into something else. Would I buy that? If all of us who are "green" only buy used, who would such a product appeal to? Certainly people who are not environmentally aware wouldn't get excited over such a product? And if no one would buy it, then why make it?

I'm not advocating an all out buy-a-thon. Not by a long shot. I still shudder at the thought of buying something that is new and not just new-to-me and still believe we should consume less, far less than the average American. But I am wondering where to draw the line. Instead of buying newly but sustainably manufactured products only once I've run out of alternatives, do I move those products up the ladder? Even if they are sustainably-produced, energy is still used to make them and, in all likelihood, waste generated? Is that offset when the product includes recycled content that would otherwise be headed to landfill? When the company uses renewable energy to build the reclaimed or recycled product? When that product is something we would actually use and, even "need," rather than some eco-gadget?

I don't know what the answer is but I do think it is a valid question.

I don't know if I have a Big Green Purse. But maybe I have a little green wallet.


Green Resolutions said...

What an interesting contemplation. As I've talked with you guys recently, I've come across different things that make me wonder about the connection/correlations between sustainable living and the economy.

I've also wondered how other couples make decisions about sustainable issues. My husband and I aren't on the same page yet!

knutty knitter said...

I think a combo of new and used is best. After all somebody has to make the initial choice to purchase before anything can be recycled. So I think I can see your husband's choice here.

However not all recycling is good. I read an article on bales of used clothing that were sent to Africa from America and this well intentioned thrift had actually killed most of the local producers along with much of the art which had embellished their clothes.

So instead of their own vibrant goods there was only the recycled look of last year's America. The locals just couldn't compete with the cheap imports.

viv in nz

ps your random letter thingy made me type titsj... :)

spelled with a K said...

Excellent examination of the issue. For what its worth I have several credit hours of economics and I still wrestle with the "green new" vs. "conventional renew"

Occasionally my DIY ethos takes over and I say "screw dependency" I'll buy it used, fix it up, we'd be better off if all the corp's dried up.

And then sometimes I feel like if people who are already in "the choir" don't support companies who have declared at least a purpose to create a more sustainable world...who will.

Bottom line is, I guess it depends on my mood.

Bobbi said...

I typically go with used over new, unless it's something I really can't find. My hubby and I have talks about sustainablity every day!

Joyce said...

I think I fall into the buy less stuff, but when you buy, choose something that will last. Used is nice if it's also quality, and you won't have to replace it soon, but, especially with clothing, I just like to have a minimalist wardrobe to begin with, and wear things out before I get something new. Of course, I'm no slave to fashion, so that works for me. With household items, we try to buy very durable things, and share them with family, or figure they might actually get inherited. And a lot of what we have was inherited by us from our grandparents, so I guess it's used? Anyway, it's interesting to think about how our personal economics affect the whole whole world, in this day of globalization.

eco 'burban mom said...

At first, my husband felt bad I was shopping at thrift stores. He felt that "he wasn't providing" enough, due to the economy and I was "forced" to shop thrift. When I explained my reasoning behind the change in retail venue, he really understood. He has always been one to visit garage sales and such for garden tools, used boating equipment etc., but hadn't thought about it in relation to clothing. We have always been good at using Craigslist for furniture and other household items. Though, occasionally we buy new. If the used item is very far away, or we can't find one in good condition, we make an exception, which I agree needs to happen from time to time.

However, I would like to know where you shop, GB! How on earth do you find such cute stuff??

arduous said...

I think it's a combination of both. Which, actually, I think you already practice. Those flip flops you bought were new. You also use 100% recycled toilet paper (I'm assuming.)

Here's the thing. A#1, buying sustainably made new items is expensive. (Like the flip flops.) Now this is fine if you're purchasing an mp3 player once every 3-4 years, or flip flops once every 3-4 years. But realistically, it wouldn't make sense for you to purchase clothes for your growing sons made of organic, sustainably harvested cotton. I mean, you get one tee shirt for $20. That's fine if you'll get several years of wear out of it, but not if six months later it will be too small.

In addition, with the clothes ... well, a lot of sustainably made clothing is ... not the most attractive clothing I've seen. Come on! A girl's gotta look cute, right? Buying used allows you to purchase the cute brand name clothing, but without the guilt.

As for the mp3 player ... it's hard. I would theoretically LOVE an mp3 player made of recycled materials. I think in some ways electronics are the perfect thing to buy sustainable/new because when you buy used electronics, you're stuck with older technology. Is there one on the market right now? I'm not exactly sure. (And if there is one, it has to be compatible with my iTunes since I own an iBook, but that's another story. Wouldn't it just be nice if Apple themselves participated in material recycling?)

In conclusion, I think you're both right. You want a mix of both. And in some ways it's nice. You don't have to beat yourself up for not giving up toilet paper because you're creating a market for recycled.

Oh, also, another thing. Ask for sustainably made new stuff for gifts. I didn't ask for gifts, but I commented a while ago on my blog about how I wanted this messenger bag made out of recycled plastic bottles and a Klean Kanteen, and Honda went out and bought those for me. So that's great because the people you love are likely want to get you and the kids gifts and they're not going to want to get you a used book. So why not ask them to do the sustainable buying. (The same goes for buying gifts for your loved ones.) Instead of a used purse, how bout buying your sis or whomever a sustainably made new purse.

Joan said...

This is yet just another area I'm trying to work on. We never really bought big items on impulse but if there was a little something I wanted, I wouldn't hesitate to go out and buy it. Now I'm trying to be creative. When I bought my compost bin the old me would have gone out & gotten a little compost bucket for the kitchen, too. The new me found an old gladware container and taped an unused charcoal aquarium filter to the lid. Works fine. Books- I try the library first then look for used. That's pretty easy. Larger things (except cars) I'm afraid we still usually go new.

eco 'burban mom said...

Arduous, I agree and here's where I get stuck. With growing kids, sustainable NEW is too pricey but sometimes thrift stores can't fill every need so we end up buying new. With younger kids it's easier, less peer pressure, less individual style, you can find loads at a thrift store. When they hit about the 5th grade, all of a sudden they want creative control over clothing. This is where it becomes a challenge. Basics, like jeans, are fine from a thrift store, but shirts, hoodies, shoes etc. - boy that's a sticky subject!

I am not sure how to handle shopping for so many kids, with so many different styles. Thrift stores are hit and miss, I could make 20-25 trips to find enough things, so all the gas and emissions to get there wouldn't be very green. I tend to shop online for any new items we need, versus drive. This means the store is not out of the one size I need and I didn't have to drive there or wait in line. I probably spend less as well, considering there are no impulse buys.

This year I am considering trying Plato's Closet - pricier than the average thrift store, but geared toward teen brand name resale. Hopefully there everyone can find what they want, without me taking 25 trips to find what they need.

Now, don't even get me started on school supplies!!! Folders, notebooks, pencils, pens, binders - all mandated a certain color, size and type by the school. There is not much wiggle room to buy green, thrift or hand-me-down there!!

Donna said...

Interesting question. I try to be green and buy used first, but I still end up buying some new stuff. For myself, I appreciate owning fewer things and buying quality sustainable. For Andrew, it's whatever I can find used, and then whatever new he happens to need. Even gifts are a mix.

I don't think there will EVER be a shortage of people who want to buy new stuff, so I think we can all buy used without damaging the economy. When we do buy new, it makes sense to buy as sustainable as possible. That's my 2 cents worth!

Robj98168 said...

He argues that big business will never be incited to change if they do not lose market share to companies offering true environmental products, if those of us who care about the planet don't create a demand for such goods

What a post! You just touched on my dilema. I tend to agree with your husband, but I also agree with buying 2nd hand. I understand the economics of buying new and supporting small bussiness. And I do all I cna to support local businesses when I can. But, the advantage to 2nd hand is IT isi affordable. Plain and simple. For example- I need a widget- a new widget costs $10, a used widget costs $7. Used widgets are just as good as new. Look the same, last about as long. I will only use the widget 2 or 3 times in a year. And add the factor I only have $10 and I need to buy lunch tomorrow.What do you think I am going to do? TO those who answered put it on your credit card you fail. I am going to buy the used widget for $7. Thus ends Prof Rob's lecture for today

Jennifer said...

Hmm... I'm going with a combination. I do strive to buy used... but I feel just as good buying handmade or locally produced...

My pocket book is not really large enough to buy most things new... my husband finally agreed on that, and for the first time bought used pants. Quite a step for him...

Green Bean said...

Green Resolutions: My husband and I were in VERY different places last year. After watching 11th Hour and King Corn, he's coming around nicely though. ;-) Seriously, though, I think it is just raising awareness. He, like me before him, and millions more still out there was not aware of the immediacy of the impact of global warming. Now he's VERY much on board and thinking about a grey water system and maybe even building me a chicken coop.

Knutty: Thank you for the comment about Africa. No. Not all recycling is good by a long shot and that is a prime example. We still need to consume less, MUCH LESS. We still need to try to make do, to repair things, and not foist our cast offs on other countries.

Spelled with a K: Thank you! Nice to know I'm not alone as to what is best. And I, only a former English major. :)

Bobbi: That's great that you can talk to your husband about it! It definitely eases stress to work as a team.

Joyce: Thank you for bringing up durability. I think that is a very important quality to consider. And also, to only buy items that you need and will use - not just some junky gadget because "it is green." And how disturbing is Knutty's comment about our clothes being shipped to pre-industrialized societies thereby destroying their own markets.

Eco Burbs: Just come on out here, girl, and I'll take you shopping. Name the looks you like, the brands, what have you. Seriously, we must have good thrift stores here. I met Mama Bird today (she's from DC) and she raved about a thrift store in the area that she stumbled upon and from which she bought all of her kids clothes for next year. She said there are not thrift stores like that by here.

Arduous: Great point on the gifts. I'll have to do that. As to the clothes, yes, I doubt I'd ever waste the money on sustainably made kids' attire. First, it is so readily available at thrift stores (I don't have Eco Burbs issues as my kids are still little) and, two, it will be destroyed (not outgrown, destroyed! or possibly stuck in a marsh somewhere or who knows what) in a matter of months. However, you are misguided if you believe that women's sustainably made clothes are not attractive. The green fashion industry is going strong. I know not because I've bought any of it but because my next door neighbor has a boutique up here and stocks 70%+ eco-friendly clothing lines (e.g., organic cotton, reclaimed fabrics, hemp, etc) and she is no slouch. That girl can dress like nobody's business.

Joan: I used to be like that too - only too happy to buy the really cute stainless steel compost crock for my compost bin out back (well, I didn't but I thought about it and the old me would have.)

EcoBurbs: I'm still without those issues but nice to have a glimpse into the future. Good luck at Plato's closet. I smell business opportunities here, btw.

Donna: Sad but true. There will probably never be a lack of folks buying used . . . though I do imagine thrift stores will get more and more picked over in a bad economy.

Rob: Thank you Professor Rob! All great points you make . . . even if you did side with my husband. You men all stick together! ;-)

Jennifer: Well price certainly is the advantage of buying used. I bought used long before I was green because (1) it was cheaper and (2) it's more fun to shop that way - you never know what you'll find. Good for you on the used pants for your husband. Mine isn't there yet. He says he'll buy Patagonia or something though. Better than the alternative!

Green Resolutions said...

Really? That is encouraging! Thank you for mentioning 11th Hour and King Corn. My husband isn't a big reader (and he's too busy to read right now anyway), so I'd love any other suggestions... Thanks!

Green Bean said...

Green Resolutions: That's all I can think about right now. 11th Hour was good because it was (1) business focused and (2) positive in the latter half. King Corn we watched on PBS. He stopped drinking soda after that. Not that that is especially green or anything but the movie obviously impacted him.

I think I'll do a post on this very topic. :)

Diane MacEachern said...

I love this post! A "little green wallet" is just as effective as a "big green purse" when it comes to redirecting spending. Can you say where you got the figure about how much waste a particular purchase generates? I'd love to pass that around. I completely agree that buying "recycled" and "gently used" is more important than most people realize. We're doing that more and more in our household, too, though it's easier with clothes and tools than with appliances. Still, buying used is another way to say "buying green." The more we do so, the better off the planet will be.

Bugs and Brooms said...

Great post GB. I have been struggling with these same issues - what is better for the environment; recycled TP or cloth wipes, buying new green manufactured items or used ones? I am not sure what the answers are either but I do think it that, the fact that we are asking the questions, is POWERFUL, life-changing, and good for the planet and for those that inhabit the earth. Hopefully the right answers will come as we continue on this journey. You have and other bloggers out there have helped me find some of those answers!

Bugs and Broms said...

Ok, obviously this is one that I am struggling with since I am back to post another comment....

What is best for the environment; replacing current appliances (as they fall-apart) with energy efficient models or older models that are destined for the landfill? Buying a new hybird (which I have problems with due to the resources being destroyed to manufacture the battery) or finding an older, used vehicle that had good gas mileage? Replacing light bulbs with those that contain mercury that are energy efficient but have limited recylcing plans in place - even though the amount of mercury is small when tons of these stop working in a few years and they all hit the landfill at the same time...? OK - just a few of my 'don't know what the right thing is' questions. Don't expect an answer - just want to vent a little over my own knowledge.

Green Bean said...

Diane: Thank you for your comment! I enjoyed meeting you at BlogHer. I got the figure from Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte (p. 239). She does not specify her source but attributes it to Paul Hawken which is why I linked it to him. Actually, I no longer have the book (library copy) but she might specify Hawken's work in a footnote. The same figure, though, was used in the movie, The 11th Hour, a film in which Hawken was heavily involved. In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard uses a similar figure: "Only 1% of the stuff we buy is still in use six months late." Hope that helps. My husband and I are both looking forward to reading your book.

Bugs: You are so right! Even though most of us do not have the answers, just asking the question, mulling it over is life changing - not just for us but for our society. I also don't know the answer to any of your questions though we have bought new, energy efficient appliances to replace ones that kept breaking. As to the CFL question, a fellow member of my city's green task force member (and expert in energy efficiency) wrote a compelling argument as to why CFLs (even with the mercury) trump incandescents. Of course, I cannot find it now but as I remember it, the gist was that CFLs use less electricity, much of which is generated in a manner that spews toxins, including mercury, into the environment. She threw out some figures, which again I can't find, arguing that ultimately less mercury is used in a CFL bulb than is released into the atmosphere when an incandescent is used. I'm not sure these are the right answers but just the fact that we are weighing the trade offs, looking for alternatives, is huge.

used items said...

Really? That is encouraging! Thank you for mentioning.My hubby and I have talks about sustainablity every day! My husband isn't a big reader (and he's too busy to read right now anyway), so I'd love any other suggestions...

Green Bean said...

Used Items: He and I have both changed a lot in the last year. I feared that we were going in different directions but you won't find anyone more supportive of my "green-ness" now and there isn't much he won't at least consider. Good luck!

DC Shoes UK said...

The bottom line for me is that these shoes are just too heavy for me to attempt to wear for fitness walking. They are super comfortable and wide in the toe box. If I had a job that involved lots of standing, I think they would be great. But I would use them sparingly for fitness walking until you build up a tolerance to their weight.
DC Shoes UK


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